Five Beautiful Things to Know About Holi, the Indian Festival of Colors

Colored powder, bonfires, and water balloons are all part of the celebration.

group of people celebrating holi with colorful powder
Photo: Kristin Ruhs / EyeEm / Getty Images

Commonly known as The Festival of Spring and The Festival of Colors, Holi is an Indian holiday that takes place at the end of March to celebrate the beginning of spring. "Revelers celebrate by throwing colored powder and water at each other and neighbors get together to dance and celebrate," blogger Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma of Maple and Marigold says. "Unlike other Indian festivals, this colorful celebration usually involves very messy clothes and loads and loads of washing up."

Festivities last for two days, starting with what is commonly referred to as mini Holi and ending with the main day of Holi, and the exact dates of the holiday change every year because they're based on the lunar calendar. "As a kid, Holi was a time to celebrate family and community and literally play with colors," says Snigdha Sur, founder and CEO of The Juggernaut, a media company and community for global South Asians and the South Asia-curious. "On the big day, we would throw powdered color at each other, fill up water guns with colored water to spray each other, and fill up balloons with colored water to throw at folks. The name of the game was to inflict the most color, and also playfully avoid others' attacks."

Interested in learning more about the world-famous Festival of Color? We asked a few experts what we should know about the popular celebration and this is what they had to say.

Holi has religious roots.

Despite being synonymous with color, Kapil Jain, a Chief Executive at Expert India Tours, says that Holi is based on a variety of religious legends. "Usually, Hindus celebrate the festival for religious reasons, but it's often celebrated by everyone irrespective of religion," he explains. Jain says one popular legend centers on the story of the evil King Hiranyakashipu, and his young son, Prahlada. Prahlada, due his deep convictions, refused to pray to anyone other than the God Vishnu, which angered the king. "The king's sister, Holika, tried to kill Prahlada but burnt herself in the process instead," he says. "Since then, Holi is often celebrated as the Festival of Triumph of Good over Evil, and on the first evening of the festival, people gather around a bonfire and pray that all their bad deeds are burned in the holy fire."

Holi is a two-day celebration.

When the festival starts on the eve of the full moon, Jain says people gather around a bonfire and sometimes roast raw wheat in hopes of a better harvest. "While it is celebrated with dancing in the streets or at temples by the people, former kings also celebrate in their palaces with full royalty and grandeur," he explains. The second day of the festival marks the main Holi celebration, when people visit friends and family and apply colors to each other to represent happiness and life. "People dance, socialize, and are blessed with the boon of togetherness and love," he says.

Holi celebrations are lively, colorful, and messy.

On the main day of Holi celebrations, Ajanta Chakraborty, cofounder of Bollywood Groove and author of the bestselling children's book Let's Celebrate Holi!, says that the focus of the holiday turns to color. "People generally wear white clothes, so that the colors show on them prominently," she explains. "Water guns and water balloons are filled with powder colored water and then used to splash color on each other." For this reason, Chhitwal-Varma says that Holi is the only festival where people wear their oldest clothes (instead of swanky new ones). "Getting Holi color out in the laundry is an enormous task, but the brighter and the messier, the better," she says.

The food and drinks are every bit as fun as the festival.

Much like the festival, Chhitwal-Varma says the food and beverages commonly served during Holi are colorful and fun. "Easy to grab finger foods are the most popular since you can eat those even when your hands and face are a total mess," she explains. "One of the most popular sweets during this time is Gujiya, a fried and sweetened empanada-like pastry stuffed with dried fruits and nuts. Along with festive foods, a refreshing cold drink, known as Thandai, is served in celebration of the holiday. "Thandai translates to 'cool down' and the drink is a milky concoction of pistachios, almonds, cardamom and—I kid you not—bhaang (cannabis). However, I make a kid-friendly version that is equally fabulous."

Everyone celebrates Holi differently.

While some Holi rituals are more popular than others, Chakraborty says that different regions of India have their own unique traditions. "In Punjab, they organize an event called Hola Mohalla where people perform incredible stunts and tricks to show their skill," she says. "While in Ahmedabad, people make human pyramids to break a pot of buttermilk hanging high up in the sky. The one who climbs to the top and breaks the pot, claims the title of Holi King."

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